Kenyan scientist feted for fighting aflatoxin

A young Kenyan scientist has been awarded the prestigious Norman Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application, for her role in combating the deadly aflatoxin mold contamination that occurs in stored grain, which destroys up to 40 percent of Kenya’s annual grain production and been responsible for hundreds of deaths from unsuspecting people after eating highly contaminated maize.

Dr. Charity Kawira Mutegi, aged 38, who currently serves as the Kenya Country Coordinator for the Aflasafe Project for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), on assignment from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), spearheaded efforts to identify the cause of, and solution to, a deadly outbreak of aflatoxicosis in 2004-05, fatal to 125 people in eastern Kenya who consumed contaminated grain.

Her diligent research led to innovative solutions to avert future outbreaks and safeguard the region’s staple crop of maize. Dr. Mutegi is leading efforts for the development of a biocontrol product in Kenya that can be used to significantly reduce aflatoxin levels in maize. This works by introducing naturally occurring non-toxic strains of the fungus, which have a competitive advantage over the strains that produce the deadly aflatoxin, a technology that was developed by the US Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (USDA-ARS), and locally adapted for use in several African countries by IITA and partners.

The non-toxic strains outcompete the toxic strains, thus reducing aflatoxin contamination in the maize crop. The microbial bio pesticide she and her team are developing – “aflasafe KE01” – is affordable for farmers, is natural and environmentally safe, and once applied to a field, the effects last multiple growing seasons, making it extremely effective.

An independent jury of experts chaired by Ronnie Coffman, the vice chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative, selected Dr Mutegi from a group of more than 40 candidates because of her breakthrough effort in fighting aflatoxin biologically. “Dr. Mutegi is an inspiration to other young scientists around the world. She tackled a critical problem, and has effectively transferred her own scientific knowledge to farmers and policymakers to help improve food safety for the entire region,” said Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn, President of The World Food Prize. “Like Dr. Borlaug, she has put the needs of people first, and has shown persistence, innovation, effective communication, contribution to science, and application of that science to improve lives and livelihoods.”

During her studies of the 2004-05 outbreak, through support by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Dr. Mutegi compiled the first-ever report in the country that provided a holistic outlook on possible avenues for contamination, and also proposed an integrated approach to managing aflatoxin contamination along the maize value chain, including regulatory and policy measures. As part of her work, she facilitated the training of more than 300 agricultural extension officers, who then worked with farmers, and over 70 maize traders and millers to increase awareness and management of deadly aflatoxin. She reached over 46,000 farmers in education campaigns about aflatoxin.

“The devastating effects of maize grain contaminated with aflatoxins on many Kenyan households cannot be understated. Several lives have been lost, tons of staple food destroyed, millions of shillings worth from the livestock sector have been lost; and by extension, several livelihoods have been destroyed through death and/or economic disempowerment,” she said.

“Having studied and understood the subject matter on aflatoxins, I was confident that the solutions were not far-fetched, but rather required a dedicated course. In addition, my desire to engage in identifying lasting solutions for the aflatoxin problem was propelled by the fact that I come from an area that suffers perennial risk to aflatoxin contamination and exposure. I therefore could not overlook an opportunity to be part of the solution.”

At the same time, she has engaged the government and sparked Parliament to establish a committee to investigate sources of contaminated grain, create heavy penalties for traders dealing contaminated grain, and investing in education efforts directed at Kenyan farmers who contribute to 75 percent of the country’s maize production. She has also documented the extent of aflatoxin contamination in peanuts, and proposed affordable means to prevent it. 

She credits her success to her “supportive work environment, guidance from senior scientists, mentorship and my personal work ethics. I do share the United States Marine Corps’ perspective that ‘no one ever drowned in sweat,’” she said. “An extra effort towards a worthwhile course as to save the lives of numerous non-suspecting citizenry is indeed worth the effort.”

Dr. Mutegi will be formally presented with the $10,000 award on World Food Day, October 16, 2013, in Des Moines, Iowa, as part of this year’s World Food Prize international symposium. 

The annual prize honours individuals under the age of 40 who make outstanding contributions to quality or availability of food throughout the world and is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and administered by the World Food Prize.